In Missoula, babies tend to come in batches. Currently we are right in the middle of a year-long pod of new births. As a result, I’ve been seeing lots of really pregnant mothers, and brand new babies lately. And (somewhat surprisingly) it seems like most of them are new mothers and first-borns. So aside from the warm fuzzy feeling I usually get seeing big round buddha-mamas and squinty-eyed little newborn peanut-saints, I have also been having this grandmother-hen-type feeling of wanting to help these newbies get off to a good start.
Of course, no mama or papa is really a “beginner” when it comes to loving or nurturing or even taking care of another; and truly we’ve all had at least some experience in proper attachment, as well. To begin with, somewhere in our brains is a catalogue of evolutionary wisdom that sets us on the right course toward healthy connection with our young, even without our thinking about it. There are innumerable responses our brains and bodies enact, while barely alerting our awareness. We move, we breath, we pulse with life, we digest, we heal wounds, all with only the barest (if any) conscious thought. Another example and more to the point — when in contact with her infant, the mother’s body will heat up and cool down by several degrees as necessary to keep her baby’s temperature optimal. Additionally, there are further responses that our bodies and brains enact and/or experience based on the thoughts we’re having, even our barely conscious ones. For instance, a nursing mother will sometimes have a milk “let-down” just hearing her baby’s voice in the next room. Add to these autonomic functions of the nervous systems of both infant and parents, the power of our empathy, which is both a brain function of mirror neurons helping us to read our children (and other humans), and an intellectual/emotional allegiance to our offspring — not to mention a healthy response to baby pheromones! And all of that (and more) is present in humans by nature, whether or not we had a loving, well-bonded infancy or childhood ourselves.
Fortunately, as it turns out, most of us, even if our upbringing was less than ideal, have had thousands of other moments of feeling profound love, care, and/or protectiveness for another. We’ve known love of moments, and of things, animals and people, and even mere ideas, all of which were important to us — not just in developing a sense of what it means to nurture, take care of, and connect with another, but each in their own right for the host of feelings that each love has given us. And every one of those moments and things and companions has added to our capacity to be loving parents.
The bottom line, here, is this: even if you’ve never had a baby, never cared for a baby, never even held a baby — you were born with the tools, and have trained for decades in how to empathize, and connect, and collaborate. You have what you need, and where you lack specific experiential knowledge, you can rely on your child to teach you, and rely on yourself to learn quickly, and rely on resources already available to you with wisdom to share. You can count on yourself. You can trust yourself. You can. I promise. And the more you do, the more you will. It’s parent magic. But only if you believe it.
If nothing else, it’s a sensible mindset to have, whether you can stay there long (at first) or not: I am learning what to do as a parent from my child and myself in each moment, and I trust us.
All the tools are accessible. You are born with some, you pick some up along the way (from experience and from reading stuff like this!), and you get more from your kid(s) — if you accept them. And the more you use them, the sharper these tools get.
In terms of tools you can take away with you from here today — some of these will not be news to you at all, but they are the basics, and they need to be covered before continuing on with other themes of nurturing that all important parent-child bond. So briefly, here’s a list of pro-attachment practices that no good parenting tool-belt should be without:
- Begin before your baby is born to build touchstones for your baby — things that she can experience in the womb and after birth, and that will help her have a sense of continuity, and womblike “neural comfort”. Things like music, both parents’ voices (as well as other care-givers’ or siblings’), certain scents (the mother would smell initially), and particular routines like going for a walk and then taking a rest are all ideal. Something like music, or your own singing can be used to help calm the baby both in and out of the womb, and can be used once your baby is born to help set the mood for bed time or other restful periods, as well as helping the baby feel generally safe and connected. Even if you didn’t begin this process while your baby was in your belly, start immediately to create these touchstones of calm security. Maybe use rituals around feeding or bedtime as a place to start — reading stories, playing a certain kind of music, repeating certain other conditions like smells, light levels, a certain snuggle position. Your baby’s body will remember and cue itself to act accordingly — that is, feel calm and safe and secure, and available for more input, and fully open to the experience of living.
- Have a gentle birth. Getting whatever help you need in order to do so, prepare yourself for a smooth, easy birth, trusting your body to do it’s thing, and making the transition as healthy, simple, and safe as possible for you and your baby. As soon as he is out, put your baby on your chest and let him see your face and smell your pheromones, and you do the same with him. Let him hear that yours is the same heartbeat he has been hearing his whole existence, and let him feel that you are (still) there to care for all his needs.
- Spend every single moment those first days in physical contact with your baby. Don’t do anything else. It’s like when you were a kid and you got that super-cool gift for Christmas and you just wanted to spend days and days and days checking out all the parts and figuring our how to make everything work. Get to know the face and body and human-ness that is your newly born baby. She’s here now. You can finally feel her in all her magnificence. So enjoy that, for all of your sakes. Parents take off your shirts and put your naked baby right onto your chests! Rub her whole back side with your hands (and maybe some olive oil), snuggle her, take deep meditative breaths, smell the top of her head, let her smell you and hear your heartbeat and your voice. When you have to get up, or put on more clothes, carry the baby with you, cozied up in some on-body carrier. Remember she is used to being in warm spring water, in near-to-absolute darkness, hearing the sounds of you and your body all day long. Do your best to replicate and/or provide those conditions for her.
- Think of the first few months of your and your baby’s after-womb life as a fourth trimester. Keep the environment muffled. Keep the baby on you. Keep all your expectations for yourself, outside of adjusting to your new life, down to the barest minimum. Just like while you were building your baby, 24/7, and gave yourself license for different expectations of yourself — do the same in these early months. You have lot’s of continuing body work going on inside you, you have major emotional and physical adjustments to make, and your baby does too. SO put the baby in your pouch and make like a slow, happy koala for a few months. You’ll never regret it… (I’ll say more about how necessary and beneficial this is in my next post in this series).
- Always, always, always respond to your baby. If she is chattering about something fun, share in the joy with her; if she is looking deeply into your eyes, look back; if she is playing with you, play back; if she is talking, listen and respond in kind (even when it’s just babble games); if she is crying or in need of assistance, come to her aid immediately and calmly. When she goes to explore something, make the way clear for her, assist her if she needs it, and receive her back when she wants to check back with you in between her adventures. This cycle of letting her go out to explore and then return for reconnection is the quintessential pattern of the rest of your parent-child life together.
- Sleep with your baby. In whatever way you can manage, however it makes sense to you and your family, make it work to sleep with him near enough that you don’t have to wake up all the way to help him in the night. If you’re nursing, then you’ll just roll over and go for it; if it’s a diaper change, have what you need at hand for middle-of-the-night quickies. If your child is napping, then you nap too, at least at first. The general edict of “sleep with your baby” will ensure that you’re both getting the most quality rest that you can. It’s also the best way for you and your baby to bond while sleeping!
- Normally, any good Attachment Parenting Basics list would likely include nurse on demand, and I am a huge advocate of breast-feeding. But I want instead to emphasize that what is most important is the “on demand” part. Obviously, nursing is “nature’s best option”, but if you can’t breast-feed, and/or choose to rely on formula, fine, but keep to the “on demand” part. Let your baby feed whenever she wants, don’t think that just because you are bottle-feeding that you have to create a regimented schedule for that. Your baby may tend toward a certain schedule, and that’s fine, too, but be in the receiving mode in terms of the signal for the timing of feeding. Remember, for the baby it isn’t about filling the physical void in her belly, it’s about receiving comforting. Always. I haven’t seen the research yet, but I am sure if and when it’s done it’ll clearly show that babies are never aware that they are wanting to nurse/feed because their bodies need sustenance. They almost surely think of it solely as comfort long into their shift to solid food.
- Use sign language and talk to your baby. He is used to your voice, he wants to hear it, it calms him, and he learns from it every single time you speak (though, it’s best if it’s in your regular voice, rather than adult-baby-talk…). But in order to be able to actually communicate clearly with him as soon as you both possibly can, use some form of gestural sign language — something he can see. We advise actual sign language (that’s ASL for my “local” friends), because it’s used by others as an actual language, and is a discreet system all it’s own; but you can use whatever signs make sense to you, so long as you are consistent. Doing so gives your child opportunities and advantages unimaginable by non-signing families. First, it sets up your baby’s brain for multilingualism (an advantage in it’s own right in terms of full brain development); it also makes his first language lessons full-body ones, thus guaranteeing their fullest neural impact; it also gets you talking more to your baby, which is great for language acquisition, comprehension, and parent-child bonding; and it makes it so your 2 year-old has a full lexicon and can express his needs rather than being frustrated at his linguistic inability to communicate his fully conscious and highly developed desires and ideas.
- If you’re brave enough to go for the gold, I would also strongly advise using elimination communication with your baby. It is sometimes also called “infant toilet training” which has the advantage of being a little more visceral, but I think also risks giving some the wrong idea — you aren’t just “training” your infant to go to the toilet instead of in a diaper, you’re “training” yourself just as much to listen and pay attention to her patterns and signals. This means you use loads less diapers, thus reducing your impact, but you also get to a level of connection with your baby that is nothing short of telepathic. You use the bond to grow the bond, and you are completely done with diaper/toilet issues by the end of your baby’s first year! Talk about a win-win-win situation…
That’s my version of the Cliff notes on Attachment Parenting, or what I like to call Cro-Magnon Parenting™. The whole idea is about making the transition from womb to Earth as smooth as possible. The aim is to grow the connection we share with our little ones, and to ensure that they feel safe, secure, and welcome here. I always think of the image in that REM song of the mother holding her child close and whispering into his ear “with calm, calm, ‘Belong‘”.
Making sure our babies are securely attached to us is how we give them the proper rooting they will need to succeed at life here in the garden. It gives them the nutrients they will need to grow to their healthiest, happiest, most fully realized selves. It makes everything we will need to do in raising them easier for all parties involved. And if nothing else, it clearly communicates that they are welcome here. It’s our best possible way(s) of making sure they know that they belong.
Enjoy yourselves, new (or re-newed) parents. Welcome to you and your new little ones! Many blessings to you and through you.